Lets Talk: An open consideration – By Stephen Stachofsky.
With the birth of my second son looming close on the horizon*, I am thrown into a mental state that I find very difficult to describe. I am here listening to music in my office, in my house, in my town, in my state, at a place in my life that I honestly never thought would be real. My wife and son are both asleep after I just finished a bedtime story with him. My first son is just about two years old. We aren’t reading Tolkein to him yet, but soon.
That being said, the following comes from the headspace of a man who has everything he always dreamt of and never really expected to have. You’ll notice a lot of possessives in the way I refer to the life I live. Like my own stories, I believe that ownership of something instills a greater desire to not only take responsibility for that something, but to also nurture and devote oneself to it. Being married and being a father are not just titles I have earned over time, like game achievements, or bonus content** unlocked by experience. They are active decisions I make every morning. Meaning that every morning I wake up and I make a conscious decision to be a husband to my wife and a father to my son. I am not these things by happenstance, but by choice. With another little one hopefully in my arms by the time you read this, I am reminded about another choice I have to make regularly as a father, and as someone with my life. What stories do I think are important enough that I am going to take time to make sure my sons know them?
To answer this question, I find that going back to stories my mother and father thought I should know as a child is the only place to start.
When I consider what stories I was told and read as a child there are three series that immediately come to mind. The first is probably one that few have heard of; the Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander. These high fantasy retellings of classical Welsh folk tales were one of the first series of books my mother read to me as a young boy. There was a Disney movie adaptation in the 80’s simply called The Black Cauldron, the title of the second book in the saga of five. The movie combined several plot points from the first three books in Alexander’s saga. As such, the books far outshine this dated 80’s relic of a movie.
The Chronicles of Prydain center on the coming of age story of Taran. When we first meet Taran he is a youthful farmhand with delusions of grandeur often pining to be one of the great heroes, like the High King. What I love about the stories of Taran and the Prydain chronicles is that Taran proves he is a hero not by his bloodline, or his particular set of gifts but by shere determination. As he grows up he learns much about himself and his place in the world of Prydain. My mother read the saga to me well before I could read myself. Lloyd Alexander based much of the realm of Prydain and it’s people on Welsh folklore and Wales. Taran’s transformation from hot-headed youth to world-wise and insightful man is a tale that I now appreciate more as I myself have seemed to turn that same page personally. I don’t have the luxury of being a hot-headed, party-going, late night carousing young boy anymore. I think my parents saw the value of these lessons in the Prydain series and encouraged me to reread the series for myself when I was old enough to read them.
My father introduced me to Star Wars and Star Trek, but their roots had already been part of my childhood. My family had multiple versions of Arthurian legends and tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men and they became some of my most beloved make believe characters. There are photos somewhere of me in my play armor and sword as I pretended to be part of King Arthur’s round table. The high fantasy genre continued to permeate my youth as my mother read aloud to my sister and I well into the fourth and fifth grades. We read the Lord of the Rings together, The Hobbit more than once, as well as the first three or four of the Chronicles of Narnia, and the first five Harry Potter books. There were other series we would all read together almost like our own little book club and my mother always encouraged us to read the books for ourselves as we got older, even if they were books she had read to us before. Often she would start a series with us aloud and then leave us to finish the books ourselves. Series like David Eddings Belgariad were some of the prime examples of that happening.
Later in life, after rereading the Belgariad as an adult, I was again taken in with the characters Eddings writes. They feel so real and individual, and in many ways reading the novels felt like it was a very fleshed out TableTop RPG session. I eventually found out that Davind Eddings did base the five book saga of The Belgariad off his own DnD campaign from the 80’s.
My father was the first person to turn me onto Sherlock Holmes. He bought me a young reader version of three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth spectaculars. I read all of his compendium of works for the character by the time I was in high school as a result. There was one story that I remember being read to me multiple times over the years, especially if we were between novels, and that was Prince Ivan and the Firebird. The story is an adaptation of a Russian folk tale, translated and illustrated, and it was probably the only real piece of cultural heritage I had growing up.
As a father myself, the decisions of what I want to read to my sons and the stories I want to impart on them, while at first had felt trivial, now seem daunting. My parents instilled a love of good stories in me, and I wish to do the same for my sons and maybe one day my daughters too. Currently my wife and I only have sons. I know I want to read the Hobbit to them, I own three different editions of that particular novel. That leads subsequently to the Lord of the Rings. I own the Belgariad, but not the Prydain Chronicles, both of which I wish to read to them too. I will read Harry Potter to them or my wife will, at least the first five books. I want to read the Percy Jackson series to them, which was one series I read as someone who was maybe a little too old to directly connect with them, but I loved the characters. My oldest son has already been introduced to Star Wars and Avatar the Last Airbender. His favorite character is Appa. He is a big fan of My Neighbor Totoro as well, which I was very happy to be introduced to as an adult. I have sadly lost most of the Arthurian and Robin Hood legend compendiums my parents had when I was a child. I hope to get some good ones that aren’t at the same comprehension level as The Once and Future King, which is almost beyond me on some days.
I encourage anyone reading this who has children, or who is considering having children in the future, to do an account of the stories that mattered to you both now and as a child. Then I recommend you try to actively think about which of these stories you wish to share with a child of your own. The stories we share with our youngest children help us shape who we wish to see them grow into. They really do have power to influence how we think, feel and see our world. Reading to children has a whole bunch of benefits for the child especially in areas of academics, but more importantly it is time together away from a screen. I know youre reading this on a screen right now, but I am becoming acutely aware of how much time my son and I spend staring at a screen when we could be spending time together in other ways. The nights my mom read to us were some of the best nights I have memories of as a kid, and I can’t wait to have those kinds of memories with my sons.
*Or born, as of this past Tuesday!
**Storytelling Breakdown made our first piece of bonus content available on Patreon last week, by the way. Check it out!